New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent solidarity mission to Israel was just that. It was not a trade delegation or a diplomatic errand. It brought a forceful, unambiguous and personal declaration of support to the people of Israel. The Governor did not take sides in Israel’s coalition disputes, or weigh in on the best course for achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace. That’s not his job, and it wasn’t the purpose of his trip. The timing and impact were well-balanced and by all accounts extremely helpful to Israel’s morale and branding.
At a time when the White House and State Department are below the radar on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks or even a Gaza ceasefire, there could be no expectation that a New York Governor with aspirations for re-election and possibly national office would give equal time to Israel’s adversaries. Palestinian representatives were right to invite the Governor to come see their side of the conflict, but the double reality for this trip was that of a U.S. politician who’s also a New York official — in other words, no chance.
The Palestinian cause would have little or no resonance with Americans if not for their confrontation with Washington’s key ally in the Middle East. Their own American constituency is both limited and diffuse, as compared to the streets of Europe. New York is all about ethnic politics, with Jews being a major and cohesive interest group of long standing. From a foreign policy perspective, Cuomo visiting Israel barely qualifies as his first “overseas” trip.
Barack Obama’s visit to Israel last year was mostly about good feelings and solidarity, too, but strategic and diplomatic substance was a constant feature. As President of the United States, he is responsible for relations with Israel and the Palestinians, and the neighboring countries. His first steps off Air Force One were to inspect a U.S.-funded Iron Dome anti-missile battery that effectively bore his signature, and his final moments on the tarmac before boarding the flight home were spent trying to reconcile Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his Turkish counterpart. No Governor could or should pretend to have such sway.
Cuomo’s visit was a full shot in the arm for Israelis. If memory serves, the late Mayor Ed Koch used to brag that more Israelis lived in New York than Tel Aviv. Israelis have a special connection to Gotham that transcends any partisan maneuverings or disagreements in either country’s capital. Seeing him in the Hamas tunnels and at the Western Wall, Israelis and many New Yorkers were proud.
New York politicians know about Israel from their earliest days pounding the pavement. The fact that New York politicians stand up for Israel and with Israelis, is not merely electoral expediency, though the advantage on Election Day is a sign of the Jewish community’s successful mobilization over many decades — not just by advocating for Israel, but by driving progress and civic leadership in America’s cultural and business gateway to the world. And that’s an understatement.
Any elected New Yorker knows that for Jews and for Israelis, especially after the Holocaust, Israel can never be or feel secure enough. Certainly, the U.S. Government writ large cannot accommodate every Jewish concern and still broker peace for Israel and its neighbors. But a Governor can, and — especially when Israelis feel besieged — such shows of solidarity help keep Israeli optimists in the game for the future. And the Governor brought his press corps, which gave Israelis an extra sense that their story was getting out.
If a New Yorker like Cuomo or Hillary Clinton makes it to the White House, U.S. and Israeli national interests will sometimes override their best “pro-Israel” (or seemingly pro-Likud) affinities. But there will be other Senators and Governors from the Empire State who will try to pull them back.